There’s a woman at M.J. Rose’s blog, Buzz, Balls, & Hype, who’s afraid her creativity has gotten out of control. Her vivid imagination compels her to project scenarios onto real-life events until they are blown way out of proportion, leaving her anxious and emotionally drained. In essence, she has trouble separating her personal life from creative life.
This woman’s plight reminded me of a story I heard many years ago about a certain famous singer/performance artist who also had trouble separating real life from art. The artist’s teenage son was in the hospital, critically ill, and according to the story (if it is to be believed), the artist brought in a tape player to record the sounds of his respirator, which she thought would make a good addition to the piece she was working on.
The artist’s story is an appalling example of the inability to separate work from reality, and yet, who among us hasn’t done the same thing to a lesser degree? We all mine our lives and relationships for creative material, whether consciously or unconsciously. Likewise, I would venture to say that most of us are also like the woman in the first example, who let her imagination run amok in real life. It’s no coincidence that there are high rates of hypochondria, depression, and addiction among creative people.
Mining for material and creative projection are two sides of the same coin. Perhaps we mine the lives of the ones we love because we don’t trust our ability to come up with interesting material on our own. Likewise, we dream up terrifying scenarios when reality isn’t quite as interesting as our fiction. Both are rooted in fear.
Such habits are destructive to our art and to our lives. It is important to make a clear distinction between work and reality, making certain that they don’t mix. That means refusing to see our family and friends as potential characters, even when their stories seem more outrageous than fiction. It also means being present in our relationships and not allowing ourselves to take mental notes of our conversations with others for use later. It’s fine to be inspired by the people and events in our lives, but reality ought to be used only as a jumping off point and not a direct source of material.
Some writers believe that there is nothing more important than the work; that finding “truth” is paramount, even at the expense of others. I would argue that nothing is more important than how we treat other people. If our work suffers because we refuse to exploit others, then so be it.